Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Car Rider: the deer who liked to ride in cars

(Would you share a ride with this deer in your Volvo?)

We have had many different kinds of pets over the years. I use the term “pet” very loosely, because many of these critters remained with us for a very short time, and they were not pets in the normal sense of that word. I will write about some of them in the future, if all of you behave yourselves.  During the past 40 years, we have had hawks, owls, foxes, rabbits, kangaroo rats, deer mice, gray squirrels, various salamanders and snakes, a red-eyed vireo, a black bear cub, and a black-tailed deer. And it is the latter animal that is the subject of this brief anecdote.

When I was studying Columbian white-tailed deer in southwestern Washington during grad school, Fred Lindzey, a fellow grad student, called me up and asked me to come over to his study area on the Washington coast. Fred was studying black bears on an island just off the coast adjacent to Willipa National Wildlife Refuge. Apparently, someone had raised a black-tailed deer fawn to yearling age, and it had become too much for them. The deer was hanging around refuge headquarters, so the personnel there thought it would be a good idea to get rid of the animal somehow. Fred immediately thought of me. I was only an hour away, I was studying a closely related species of deer on a deer refuge, we lived on the refuge, and there was plenty of space to turn the deer loose. Plus, he thought I might learn something by watching a black-tailed deer amidst a population of white-tailed deer. Sounded reasonable.

So I drove over to Willipa to pick up this deer in my Dodge truck. Now, this deer thought it was a dog or something, because it tried repeatedly to get through the front door of any house and, most curious of all, it would jump into the front seat of a car or truck if the door was left open. It actually liked to ride in moving vehicles. Thus, it was given the name “Car Rider”. In this instance, we encouraged the deer to jump into the back of the pickup truck and I drove it back to my study area on the deer refuge.

When I arrived back at the refuge, I promptly put a neck collar on the young male, similar to the one I used on my study animals. After a few hours of entertaining ourselves with this weird deer, I decided it was time to introduce Car Rider to his new home. I put him in the back of the truck and drove down the gravel road to the center of the 2,000 acre deer refuge, and released him. I began driving back to my house and after about 100 yards, I looked in the rear view mirror only to see that Car Rider was chasing after the truck and was only a few yards behind me. I couldn’t drive fast enough on this rough road to distance myself from him, so I ended up back at the house with a winded deer. Introduction of black-tailed deer to white-tailed deer population = failure!

The next morning I received a call from the refuge manager who wanted to meet with me in his office, which was about 3 miles on the other side of the refuge. I got in the truck, and drove about 45 miles per hour to his office. The road made a bend about half way there where I needed to bear right to get to his office; another small road took off to the left at the bend, and this was the only other road that intersected the route I took. About 20 minutes into our meeting, we got a phone call from Hobie's grocery store in Skamokawa, the tiny town nearby, that they had a very hot and tired deer standing in their store with a white collar around its neck. Damn! Car Rider had apparently tried to follow my truck, unbeknown to me, but I had been able to drive fast enough to put enough distance between us so that when he got to the bend in the road, he went left instead of right and ended up at the store.

Needless to say, my cohabitation with this deer had already become an untenable situation. At this point I was cursing Fred Lindzey, because I had little time for all this. In the end, I found that research biologists with the Washington Department of Game needed a trainable deer for a food habits study, and that is where Car Rider was sent. What a dear.